Lakshmanan comes back wild-eyed and dishevelled from his trip to the river. “Did a black bear slap your face?” I ask him.
Truly, one side of his face is red, as though about to form a welt. “No,” he says. He hums and haws. Then he says, “Will you go to the river from tomorrow? I have to gather more wood to make arrows. Game is getting scarce as the winter approaches.”
“But we only eat animals that are already dying.”
“Forgive me, mother. I misspoke. What I meant to say is that I need to make baskets to store berries for the winter, and perhaps to sell at the edge of the forest, for any travellers that don’t mind giving a coin for a basket woven by a prince.”
“Of course,” I say. I know his confusion must have something to do with the woman, Surpanakai.
We spend the rest of the evening quietly, each alone with our thoughts, and it gives me respite to speculate on what must have happened to Lakshmanan at the river. Usually, I spend my evenings imagining all sorts of agonising and trivial deaths for my dear husband, who still hasn’t returned from the grove of the hermits. I cannot help but think of them as a coven of witches, conspiring to keep him away and darken my mind with such foreboding and worry.
It seems that ever since I met the witch, the native woman, the binds between Raman and me are twisting and twisting. Sometimes this tension threatens to snap them.
If I could occupy myself with something or the other, I wouldn’t have to wrestle with these grim thoughts all the time. Oh, how I wish for a band of musicians, jesters, the reassuring talk of family women. Oh, for a good storyteller, soothing rich food, some silk shawls, some puffed rice, some singular entertainment father used to think up on a whim – six prancing elephants, seven pigeon shooters, eight gem-encrusted umbrellas set on a dizzying spin. Thus, I soothe myself to sleep with these fantasies.
Lakshmanan’s discomfort gives me amusement. It makes me think kindly of the woman. Here is an opportunity to relieve my tired brain of its obsession with my husband’s demise. I will converse with the woman, no matter how she revolts me with her strange culture, her bold statements, her impolite queries and her forward manner. And I shall try not to stare at her breasts as she speaks of mountains and rivers and men.
Sitai comes every day and sits with me an hour before filling the pot. She is sweet and seems helpless. Doe Eyes, I start to call her. It makes her smile, and if there is a thorn hidden in the compliment, she doesn’t appear to notice it.
Each day she grows a little more melancholic. The gloom inside her saturating her skin, circling her eyes, stealing her bloom of youth. I want to ask her why Lakshmanan doesn’t return to the river, to me, but her melancholy makes me hold my tongue. I gradually lose interest in the reasons for Lakshmanan’s continued absence. He knows where to find me. Instead, the mystery of Sitai’s melancholy occupies me.
“Oh nothing,” she says, when I broach it. “It must be the lack of nourishment. I’m constantly hungry.”
Her appetite, I think, would return with her husband. She is lovelorn, I imagine, and feel kindly towards her.
“I shall cook the haunch of a deer for you,” I tell her. “Tomorrow. I will stew it long and slow in just some water with salt and tippili. All the marrow from the thigh bone will restore your humours and your strength.”
“You are kind,” she says, her eyes lighting up, but then fading, “but we only eat animals that are already dying.”
“Dying animals carry all manner of disease. Only vultures eat them.”
Sitai looks appalled. “Maybe I’ve been eating too many dying animals; they have poisoned me, hence I’m so unhappy, possessed by evil humours.”
I laugh. “Only dying animals! Are you sure your husband and brother-in-law have been telling you the truth?”
“They never utter a lie.”
“Why, are they superhuman?”
“Many consider them to be. Even grand old sages worship them. My husband is said to be touched by a divine hand.”
“I have a brother, the ruler of Elangai, who is touched by the dark hand of divinity. He can fly. He can play the veenai better than Saraswati. He cannot be killed by a god, demon or a wild beast. Give me an account of your husband’s attributes.”
“He is righteous, moral, and is a supreme marksman. He is just a man, but his morality emanates from him.”
I cannot help but ask, “Is the brother Lakshmanan also moral?”
“Lakshmanan is singularly devoted to Raman. He has left his wife and his parents, and taken a vow of chastity to remain completely dedicated to his brother.”
I lose my composure. “You fool,” I cry. “You have little understanding and great prejudice. Your men take you for a simpleton.”
“What would you know? You haven’t even met my husband. You do not know him.”
“If he is anything like his brother, then believe me, he is of mortal flesh.”
“You do not know Lakshmanan at all. He is straight as an arrow. He will not touch another woman while he has sworn devotion to his brother.”
“I have seen all the parts of him that bend and straighten. And believe me, there was no room in his head for thoughts of his brother while he was with me.”
“That is enough,” she cries, and scrambles to her feet. “Curb your evil tongue. Some powerful demon has sent you to corrupt my mind, to plot against my husband.”
I laugh at Sitai’s wretched innocence.
I am pounding what wild rice I have found from three days’ searching, when there is a step at the hut’s door. It is Raman, come back from the coven of hermits. Black fatigue circles his eyes. His bow trembles in his hand. His knees sink to the mud floor. Forgetting propriety, I go to him and lower my knees, letting his shoulders lean on mine.
I am relieved, I tell myself. I will now forget about the woman and her wild claims. My husband is here, my rock. Lakshmanan appears at the door quiet as a cat. He too has been lurking, not ten feet from the hut, in anticipation of Raman’s arrival. We had seen the arrow that Raman shot when he entered the forest. The finest marksman in all the land, my husband, shot his thinnest arrow, fashioned from the most fragrant eucalyptus twigs, straight into the sky, and when it fell, it went through the tulsi pot on the veranda of our hut. The pot broke, but we were overjoyed. I know Lakshmanan is at the door. I hear his sharp intake of breath. But seeing Raman leaning against me, he lowers his eyes and steps away.
Raman hasn’t noticed his brother. He rests, wordless, for a minute, then says in his silken voice, in a parody of my thoughts, “You are my rock. Unchanging, unswerving. I go to battle demons, barely hold my lifeblood together within the tattered folds of my skin to come home, and here you sit preparing a meal for me.”
I take this compliment silently. I do not have the heart to tell him I am far from unchanged. I am a mass of turmoil, a mess of doubts, and worst of all, I resent Raman coming back empty-handed. For I know with one glance there is no treasure concealed in the folds of his garment. The hermits no doubt felt that the experience of protecting their mighty yagna from yakshis was payment enough. They fondly imagine that the very honour of their acquaintance fills Raman’s belly and his family’s too. And I cannot even admit to myself how I resent his coming home when, after three days, I have scraped together enough grains for a mere handful of cooked rice. I would now have to serve him first, and what he leaves on his plate goes to his brother, and what the brother leaves I eat.
The wild southern woman has sowed a seed within my heart, and it is sprouting, sending roots into the earth tamped down for years by my father and my husband.
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Excerpted with permission from The Birth of Kali, Anita Sivakumaran, Juggernaut.